Discernment of Spirits—The word "spirit" refers to two different types of motivating powers. The spirit of an individual refers to the internal inclination to good or evil, and it manifests itself with such regularity that it must be considered a personal trait. But it is also possible for an individual to come under the influence of a spirit that is extrinsic to the personality, whether from God or the devil. Hence it is the function of "discernment of spirits" to judge whether a given act or repetition of acts flows from the Holy Spirit, the diabolical spirit, or the human spirit.

There are two types of discernment of spirits (DS): acquired and infused. Acquired DS is complementary to ordinary spiritual direction and can be cultivated by all who use the proper means. Infused DS is a charismatic gift, which is granted by God to certain individuals.

Acquired DS is absolutely necessary for a spiritual director or prayer-group leader, since it helps him/her to determine the spirits that are leading a person away from God, and on the other hand, the action of the Holy Spirit leading one towards God. The various means by which one can acquire the art of DS are:

1. Prayer. This is the most important means.

2. Study. Leaders should also become familiar with the general principles of spiritual theology contained in the Bible, the masters of the spiritual life, and the lives of the saints. One should have a broad and sympathetic understanding of a variety of "schools" of spirituality.

3. Personal experience. While it is true that each person has unique traits and characteristics, there is also a common pattern possessed by all, and unless one understands oneself, it will be very difficult to understand others. If moreover, the leader himself has not attained some degree of virtue and self-mastery, it is not likely that he will be able to understand the condition of those he seeks to guide.

Spirits can be summarized under three headings: the Holy Spirit, the diabolical spirit, and the human spirit. God’s Spirit always inclines us to the good, working either directly or through secondary causes; the devil always inclines us to evil, working by his own power or through the allurement of the things of the world; the human spirit may be inclined to evil or to good, depending upon whether the individual follows right reason or selfish desires.

Due to the basic indifference of many natural inclinations, it is evident that they may be used for good and for evil, and while grace does not destroy nature but perfects and super-naturalizes it, the devil utilizes human weakness and the effects of original sin to further his evil aims. Moreover, it may happen that, in one and the same action, various spirits are intermingled. Even when the Spirit predominates in a given action, it does not follow that the antecedent or consequent movements are supernatural. It can happen that purely natural movements introduce themselves, consciously or unconsciously, and cause the action to lose some of its purity. For example, God’s Spirit may inspire me to fast regularly, but my spirit may subsequently tell me to fast only nominally (so that I don’t get the spiritual benefit of fasting), or the devil may influence me to overdo or extend my fast over several days (and so I ultimately ruin my health!).

Divine Spirit The following are some general signs:

1. Truth. If a person maintains opinions that are manifestly against revealed truth, the infallible teaching of the Church, or proven theology, or philosophy, or science, it must be concluded that he/she is deluded by the devil or is the victim of excessive imagination or faulty reasoning.

2. Docility. Persons moved by the Holy Spirit accept with true peace the advice and counsel of those with authority over them. They manifest sentiments of humility and self-effacement.

Discretion. The Holy Spirit makes the person discreet, prudent, and thoughtful in all his/her actions. There is nothing of precipitation, frivolity, exaggeration or impetuosity; all is well balanced, edifying, and full of calmness and peace.

Peace. The person experiences a profound and stable serenity in the depths of his/her spirit.

Purity of intention. The person seeks only that God’s will be done and that God be glorified in all that he/she does, without human interest or motivation out of self-love

Patience in suffering. No matter what its source, or whether or not it is justly received, the soul bears it with equanimity.

Simplicity. Together with veracity and sincerity, this is never lacking in those who are truly motivated by the Spirit. Any duplicity, arrogance, hypocrisy, or vanity must be attributed rather to the devil.

Freedom of spirit. First of all, there is no attachment to any created thing, even the gifts received from God. Second, all is accepted from the hands of God with gratitude and humility, whether it be a question of consolation or trial. The opposite would be done in the case of those with a rigid and unyielding will, who are controlled by self-love.

Human Spirit There is a constant struggle between grace, and the human spirit wounded by sin and strongly inclined to self-love. The human spirit is always inclined to its own satisfactions; it is a friend of pleasure and an enemy of suffering of any kind. It readily inclines to anything that is compatible with its own temperament, its personal tastes and caprices, or the satisfaction of self-love. It will not hear of humiliations, penance and renunciation, but seeks success, honors, applause and pastimes.

Diabolical Spirit Normally, diabolical influence on the individual is restricted to simple temptation, though sometimes the devil may concentrate his power on an individual by means of diabolical obsession or even possession. (Detailed study of this is beyond our scope here.) The various signs are:

1. Spirit of falsity. The devil is the father of lies, but he cleverly conceals his deceit by half-truths and pseudo-mystical phenomena, by hypocrisy, simulation and duplicity.

2. Morbid curiosity. This is characteristic of those who eagerly seek out the esoteric aspects of mystical phenomena or have a fascination for the occult or preternatural.

3. Confusion, anxiety, and deep depression. Also, despair, lack of confidence, and discouragement-a chronic characteristic that alternates with presumption, vain security, and unfounded optimism.

4. Obstinacy, disobedience and hardness of heart.

5. Constant indiscretion and a restless spirit. Those who constantly go to extremes (in penitential exercises / apostolic activities), or neglect their primary obligations to do some personally chosen work.

6. Spirit of pride and vanity. Very anxious to publicize their gifts of grace and mystical experiences.

7. Impatience in suffering and stubborn resentment.

8. Uncontrolled passions and strong inclination to sensuality. Also, excessive attachment to sensible consolations, particularly in prayer.

This article is by Fr. Fio Mascarenhas, SJ. He is the Chairman of the National Catholic Charismatic Renewal Service, India. 1997 International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services, Vatican City. Used by permission.

Return to List of Articles